An Orleans Parish jail inmate in 2016. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

The Orleans Public Defenders have identified over 200 people in the New Orleans jail who are being held on non-violent felonies, according to a letter they sent to Orleans Parish Criminal District Court acting Chief Judge Robin Pittman on Friday. The letter urges for their immediate release due to the danger of the new coronavirus spreading in the facility.

“We believe that waiting even until early next week to act might be waiting too long to prevent an irreversible outbreak,” the letter reads. 

The letter comes two days after the public defenders filed an emergency petition to the judges for the immediate release of individuals being held on non-violent charges, as well as any prisoners “who have risk factors such as age or underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious health consequences from COVID-19.”  

The letter on Friday did not identify how many individuals in jail fall into the latter category.

The judges have not yet responded to that petition. According to state law they have 72 hour to do so, which would put the deadline sometime tomorrow afternoon.

On Thursday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman joined the public defenders’ efforts to lower the jail population, calling for the judges to release non-violent inmates without a prior criminal history. 

“We have been fortunate this far and have had a lower presumed infection rate among our inmates than other comparative facilities,” Gusman wrote. “However, for this to continue, we need your assistance. Further reduction of our inmate population would allow us to have ‘flex’ units to allow rotation of our populations, sanitation of empty units, and further separation of individuals in our custody.” 

Earlier this week, the court issued an en banc order mandating the release of anyone in custody for failure to appear on a probation status hearing, contempt of court, a remand on a positive drug test, or a pre-trial misdemeanor. It appeared to overlap significantly with an order from 2019 that was already in effect.

The letter from the public defenders suggests that the order, issued on Wednesday, did not go nearly far enough:

“On March 25, 2020, the jail population was 918. On March 26, 2020, following the order of the en banc, the jail population was 901,” the letter reads. “We have since identified over 200 individuals who are being held in the Orleans Justice Center on felonies that are NOT crimes of violence. We urge you to release them immediately, including those with probation or parole holds.”

(According to a press release from the Sheriff’s Office, the population of inmates being held locally on Wednesday was 869, though data provided by the Sheriff’s Office to the City Council showed it at 918. The reason for the disparity was not clear, but it may be related to a small number of inmates with acute mental health needs, who are legally considered Orleans Parish inmates, being held at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.)

“We can’t wait to do this piecemeal,” said Colin Reingold, Litigation Director at the public defenders office. “This jail is unsafe now and it’s only a matter of time that an outbreak occurs. We appreciate the court and the DAs willingness to work with us, but there are hundreds more people who are in jail on nonviolent charges. It doesn’t make any sense from a public health or public safety standpoint to keep them locked up in there.”

Seven detainees have been tested for coronavirus, and all are awaiting results, according to the Sheriff’s Office. One “former inmate” has tested positive, but it was unclear how long the individual had spent in jail or whether they began showing symptoms prior to being transferred to the hospital. 

Five staff members of the Sheriff’s Office, and four employees of the jails healthcare provider, Wellpath, have tested positive for the virus.

On Monday, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition wrote a letter condemning the speed at which the city was moving to reduce the jail population, pointing to the judges specifically. 

“The courts have the power to head off this threat, as we’ve seen in jurisdictions across the country that have dramatically reduced their jail populations,” they wrote. “If New Orleans’ judges don’t take action to release enough people for the jail to be able to follow the CDC’s recommendations, they will have blood on their hands.” 

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...